Dear Grandma: ’When I think of true selflessness, I imagine you’

The compassion you’ve shown as a frontline worker during the pandemic, writes Kelsey Adams to her grandmother, is what society needs to rebuild
Kelsey Adams
Kelsey Adams (left) and her grandmother Grace Adams (Photograph by Jalani Morgan)
Kelsey Adams and her Grandmother Grace Adams photographed in Toronto, Canada. (Photograph by Jalani Morgan)

You received your second COVID-19 ­vaccine on Jan. 5. I had the date highlighted in my calendar. I remember closing my eyes and grinning until my jaw was sore after my dad, your son, told me the news. I didn’t realize it before, but I had been holding my breath for months, my body tense with concern.

None of us saw last year coming; it seemed the pandemic had blindsided the world. You, and countless others like you, have helped humanity through it. We often speak about the sacrifices of frontline workers, but so many of us are shielded from the daily reality: we’re not in the long-term care facilities or ICUs. As a personal support worker, you have attended to people who are isolated from their families, craving solace and compassion.

My brother and I have always joked about the fact that our grandmother takes care of other people’s grandparents, but the pandemic turned that irony on its head. You were working eight days in a row, double shifts. When your LTC facility was under-staffed, you went in on your days off or during your vacation. When you aren’t at work, your phone rings with calls from residents who miss your presence.

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My first question, in the rare moments I’ve seen you in person lately, is always: “When was your last day off?” I know I’m pestering you, but I can see the stress etched into your face, the sheer weight of the past year reflected in your eyes. If you were ever worried about getting sick, you never showed it. And miraculously, you never got infected.

What you did show was fortitude and quiet strength. It’s been deeply inspiring to watch you give all of yourself to the residents, to make sure they feel cared for, safe and loved. The pandemic has been a never-ending onslaught, but you’re always there with a smile and comforting hand.

But this is not new—this has always been who you are. When I think of true selflessness, I imagine you. You are your name personified—Grace.

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Grandma, you’ve always been a hard worker—to be an immigrant mother of four you had to be. Moving your family from Jamaica to Toronto in the ’70s and building an entirely new life was a feat in itself. You held many jobs to feed, house and clothe your family, but I know it was important to you that your work held purpose. My parents told me how proud you were when you completed courses in 1992 and became a personal support worker.

You and Grandpa built a glorious new life, with three generations to show for it. It’s not lost on me that I’m standing on the backbone of the life you created. I owe you all and thank you for laying the groundwork so I can dream and achieve endless possibilities.

I’ve been on the receiving end of so much of your love and thoughtfulness. From the very first breath I took, it guarded me. I was born prematurely, weighing just three pounds, and you prayed every night for a month until I was safely home. Afterwards, my mom started to notice that any necessities she mentioned to you would be there waiting on her next visit. You still do that today, silently keeping a mental tab of every potential need and surprising us unexpectedly, including the care packages you prepare for my brother when he’s far from home.

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Your caring nature extends beyond family. I’ve heard the stories about your open-door policy back in the day. Whenever any of your children’s friends had less-than-ideal home situations, you welcomed them into your own without hesitation. I’ve seen firsthand the way you lend a hand to everyone at your church—how no one leaves your house empty-handed, the extra dinner you prepare in case someone stops by.

We’re in the last, long stretch of this pandemic and you remain a refuge and safe harbour for so many. But I’m begging you to start taking more days off work.

Yours is a legacy of empathy and altruistic service. If there’s one thing your actions have taught me during COVID, it’s that the only way we can rebuild when it’s over is to see the uplifting of community as our collective responsibility. In small ways, every day, you embody the spirit that humanity needs to achieve a more equitable and caring future.

This article appears in print in the September 2021 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “Dear Grandma.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.

The piece is part of Maclean’s Before You Go series, which collects unique, heartfelt letters from Canadians taking the time to say “Thanks, I love you” to special people in their lives—because we shouldn’t have to wait until it’s too late to tell our loved ones how we really feel. Read more essays here. If you would like to see your own letters or reflections published, send us an email here. For more details about submitting your own, click here.